Doctors in England and Wales urged to monitor people’s drinking habits

<span>Photograph: Alex Segre/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alex Segre/Alamy

GPs in England and Wales are being urged to ask patients detailed questions about their drinking habits amid concerns that thousands of people with alcohol issues are “slipping through the net”.

More than 10 million people consume alcohol at levels that pose a risk to their health, according to experts. Millions are mildly or moderately dependent on alcohol, while about 600,000 people have severe alcohol dependency and will, as a result, benefit hugely from professional alcohol treatment.

Only one in six of the population who could benefit from alcohol treatment, however, actually take it up.

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The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), the medical watchdog, has drawn up guidance urging family doctors and health workers – as well as social care, voluntary sector and criminal justice workers – to ensure people’s drinking habits are correctly recorded.

The move is aimed at ensuring all those who need support are offered it. Thousands are missing out on either help and support to curb problem drinking, or a referral to specialist services, Nice said.

Logging information properly and in detail will also mean that patients are not repeatedly asked about their drinking habits, Nice added.

“Many of us are asked about our alcohol use when we interact with health services, but if an appropriate questionnaire is not used, people with alcohol problems could be slipping through the net and may not be receiving the support they need,” said Dr Paul Chrisp, director of the centre for guidelines at Nice.

“We know a large number of people who are dependent on alcohol are not receiving treatment and this could be for a variety of reasons, but as part of a health and care system that continually learns from data, we do know that using a validated questionnaire provides commissioners with the information they need to organise appropriate services.”

A 2018 study on the GP records of 1.8 million adults across the UK found that half had no information on alcohol consumption data. Fewer than one in 10 had a screening test score.

Health professionals should use a validated questionnaire to ensure the information on how much and how often people drink is appropriately logged, according to Nice’s draft quality standard, which sets out improvements for care of adults with alcohol problems.

Nice has also asked social care services as well as criminal justice and community and voluntary services to ensure they have systems in place to use validated alcohol questionnaires when asking people about their alcohol use.

Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of the Alcohol Change UK charity, said the new guidance would be widely welcomed.

He said: “Over 10 million people in the UK consume alcohol at levels that pose a risk to their health and millions of us have mild or moderate dependency on alcohol – when we try to stop drinking, we often find it harder than we expect.

“Around 600,000 people have severe alcohol dependency and will, as a result, benefit hugely from professional alcohol treatment.

“Professional alcohol treatment is commissioned by local authorities across England and provided for free to everyone who needs it. And it works. However, there is currently a big problem: only around one in six of the people who could benefit from alcohol treatment actually take it up.”

The draft quality standard, which includes five statements about the diagnosis and management of alcohol-use disorders, has been put out for consultation until 28 February.